Brenda Murphy - “The Candy Queen”
In 1998, my professional and personal life changed when I created a candy replica of my favorite TV host’s set – as a way of getting a studio audience ticket to The Rosie O’Donnell Show. My efforts paid off more than I could have imagined. Rosie is responsible for putting me in front of a large audience, and introducing me to so many fascinating and famous people. She helped me create a television presence – I believe I am one of the few food people who have a television “platform” without the benefit of my own food program, food book or high-profile restaurant.
It all started innocently enough: I was a fan of Rosie’s show since it premiered in 1996. I desperately wanted to see the show live, but never managed to get a ticket, despite writing to the show on a regular basis, and even waiting outside several times hoping to get a “standby” ticket. Then it hit me: maybe if I made Rosie’s studio out of candy and sent the producers photos of the result they would realize what a big fan I was, and finally allow be to be a member of the studio audience. Well, not only did they send me tickets, they booked me as a guest. In total, I appeared on Rosie’s show six times, and introduced it three times. More media appearances followed. In October 1999, thanks to Rosie, Good Housekeeping magazine profiled me as “The Candy Queen,” and the name stuck.
I am an unlikely media personality. Like Loretta Lynn, I was born a coalminer’s daughter in Owensboro, Kentucky, the youngest of nine children. Our family moved to Indiana when I was two years old and it was there that I enjoyed an idyllic country childhood. My mother’s down home, delectable and traditional southern cooking inspired my own culinary efforts after I was married. As soon as I was old enough, I also spent many fast-paced summers working as a carhop girl in my brothers’ hometown restaurants.
Probably the most memorable moment of my early years was in 1965, and it might explain my penchant for the sweet life. While on a date with a great guy named Keith, (we’re now husband and wife and have been happily married since 1967) we got caught in a tornado. I was sucked out of Keith’s car, flew around in the air a few times, and then dropped to the ground with several injuries. I survived, obviously, and was hospitalized, but others were not so fortunate. Keith was wearing a seat belt and wasn’t hurt at all. Life’s just too short, and unpredictable, not to make – and eat – dessert first! So, have fun and enjoy life!
My cake-decorating odyssey began more modestly: I wanted to learn how make beautiful birthday and holiday cakes for my daughters, Michelle and Monica. A free candy and cake demonstration class at Country Kitchen, a large culinary and confectionary retailer in Fort Wayne, Indiana, introduced me to the world of confectionary arts. I took to it right away and wanted to learn more so I added Wilton’s basic cake decorating classes to my “curriculum.” Later I took Carole Faxon’s Country Kitchen class on edible airbrushing. Carole was a very well known airbrush artist with several professional books to her name. I was hooked. The first custom cake I made was for my parents. They loved to grow flowers and vegetables, so I made a garden-themed cake complete with cake crumb “dirt” and candy “plants”. Next I created a family tree cake for our family reunion. More custom cakes followed, and eventually a friend and I started to rent booth space at craft shows to sell our sweets.
As I continued to practice my candy art I met many encouraging people. We lived in Edmond, Oklahoma from 1979 to 1983 and a woman food columnist for the local newspaper, urged me to enter my baked goods and other recipes in the Oklahoma State Fair. If you know anything about state fairs, you know that the competition is stiff, especially in a state like Oklahoma. Courage, enthusiasm and a bit of innocence allowed me to take a chance and enter homemade, original items in the Cake Decorating, Working Mother’s Casserole, Hershey’s Cocoa Cake, Pies, Cookies, and Chili Cook Off categories. The cake-decorating contest required contestants to embellish a cake in an hour. Mine was in the shape of Oklahoma with readymade Oklahoma-related items for decorations. To my amazement, I won first place or best of show in nearly every group – I still proudly display the two beautiful gold medals, six blue ribbons and Best of Show I was awarded.
My family moved to New Jersey is 1986. I began volunteering at Halloween parties sponsored by M&M Mars in Hackettstown. Every year I created a different haunted house using Mars products, which would be given away in a drawing. The candy company liked my work so much they asked me to create a holiday house and holiday tree kits for the retail market.
Then came my Rosie appearance, and I continued to bake and create, make television appearance, and innovate new uses for candy. A couple of weeks after being on Rosie’s show the first time, I learned that Nabisco was having a contest that asked contestants to use at least five of Nabisco products to create something – anything – for their 100th anniversary. Judges (a Nabisco executive, a top pastry chef from Chicago’s famed Frontera Grill/Topolobampo restaurant, and an architect from I.M. PEI) picked the top three entrants for the final competition in Chicago, of which I was one. I made a cottage and used more than 30 Nabisco products. There were four categories: youth, teen, adult and adult professional. I entered the adult professional since I had earned a little money by making cakes. The night before the contest we had dinner with our competitors. Mine had several professional laurels and post-graduate degrees from Harvard and Yale! My degree is from Van Buren, Indiana High School and I am self-taught in my candy creations!
The Chicago contest required each of us to create something in an hour using the same products. I decided to create Snow White’s castle. But when we were given the products and directed to “Start!”, I discovered two key products, ice cream cones and Bubblicious were missing! The PR people could not find the items in the stores, so all my planning had to change. I redesigned my ideas on the spot. I was so shocked when they announced that I was the grand prize winner and $10,000!
In 2002, some 30 years after I took my first airbrushing class, I was attending ICES (International Cake Exploration Societe) convention for the first time. I happened to sit at a table with two ladies that were waiting for their friend – Carole Faxon, the person who taught me to airbrush and who was also one of the founders of ICES. I showed her pictures of my candy creations and she convinced me to hold a demo class at the 2003 ICES convention in Las Vegas. Although by this time I had been on live TV several times (ABC, NBC, CBS, The Food Channel, and others during 1998-2003), I had never been in front of a group to teach and had no idea what it would be like. I was scared. Carole said she would be there with bells on for my first demo class.
To my surprise hundreds of people showed up for my class. Sadly, I had learned that Carole had breast cancer but was in remission and two months before I was to do the demo in Las Vegas her cancer came back. So I was not expecting to see her at the convention, let alone my demo. My heart leapt when I saw Carole being pushed down the center aisle in a wheelchair, ringing a little bell to support me! That year she was inducted into the ICES Hall of Fame, and passed away that fall. I now enjoy passing on Carole’s legacy by sharing my knowledge with others.
In November 2001, I was a featured guest candy artist at the New York Chocolate Show. I was displaying my large reproduction of Times Square at New Year's Eve. Every hour, the lighted sugar crystal ball dropped, lights went off, candy taxis moved around the building, and candy confetti shot out from the roof! A huge crowd gathered around each hour to watch the countdown. One gentleman approached me and asked if I ever thought about doing a book. I told him yes I had, but didn’t know any publishers, and he said, “Here I am!” It was Byron Preiss, a book publisher.
We decided to work together on a project - the first thing I built for the book was a large candy reproduction of the White House. In November 2004, I was invited to Laura Bush's Book Festival in Washington D.C. and displayed a large foam-mounted picture of the candy White House. It was a big hit at the festival with adults and kids and they would stop and ask how I made it and if I had a book out. Sadly, Byron died in a traffic accident July 9, 2005 and the tragedy temporarily took some of the wind out of my sails.
I am also featured in a children’s educational book from educational publisher Mondo called Candy Creations from the Candy Queen, written by Wiley Blevins. It includes instructions for building one of my candy castles, and encourages children to read biographies and hone their logic and fine motor skills. I am also featured as The Candy Queen character in several of cartoonist’s Phil Yeh’s popular comic books, which promote literacy, and in Starring You! by Terence Noonan and Marta Tracy (Harper Collins, 2007). I am currently working on a new book showing my creations and how you can make them too.
I am probably more amazed than anyone, when I think about having been on every major TV network, and to have had my creations featured with such shows and celebrities as Rosie, Martha Stewart, Wayne Brady, Kathie Lee Gifford, Barbara Walters, Florence Henderson, Bryant Gumbel, Steve Colbert, Martina Navratilova, Caroline Rhea, Tony Danza, Art Smith – Oprah’s chef, The Morning Show with Mike & Juliet and others. I also find it hard to believe I have had creations featured at such diverse places as the White House festival, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the New York Chocolate show, and at Disney World. Pictures and brief descriptions of these appearances can be found on my website tab at the top of the page titled “Celebrity Creations”.
I still enjoy making special cakes for my grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and friends. I also feel fortunate to be able to contribute my talents to many charities for children, including Rosie O’Donnell’s “Rosie’s Broadway Kids”, Art Smith’s “Common Threads”, Kathie Lee Gifford “Cassidy Place”, Dena Hammerstein’s “Only Make Believe”, and schools. Seeing smiles on the faces of children still remains the best reward for making my creations. My daughters, Michelle and Monica are now adults, living in Amarillo, Texas and Kansas City, Missouri. Michelle is a mother of two, Alex and Bradley, and a teacher showing school children how to cook and bake. Monica is a mother of four, Jake, Max, Ty and Ellie and an artist. I grew up in Indiana, have lived in Edmond, OK, Waco, TX, but now live in Long Valley, New Jersey with my sweet husband Keith.